Concerto for Orchestra
At the beginning of 1943, while he was delivering a series of lectures on folk music at Harvard University, Béla Bartók's already fragile health took a drastic downturn, necessitating a battery of medical examinations. When these proved inconclusive, "the Harvard people persuaded me to go through another examination," the composer wrote, "led by a doctor highly appreciated by them and at their expense. This had a certain result as an X-ray showed some trouble in the lungs which they believed to be [tuberculosis] and greeted with great joy: 'at last we have the real cause!' (I was less joyful at hearing this news.)"
After the composer returned to his home in New York, ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), "somehow got interested in my case," he continues, "and decided to cure me at their expense…. They sent me to their doctors who again took me to a hospital. The new X-rays, however, showed a lesser degree of lung trouble... maybe not tuberculosis at all!... So, we have the same story again, doctors don't know the real cause of my illness."
While in the New York hospital, however, he was visited by Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, who - at the behest of two of Bartók's fellow Hungarian expatriates, violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner - came with a commission for a work in memory of his recently deceased wife, Natalie Koussevitzky. Bartók accepted and produced the Concerto for Orchestra, his last completed work save for the Sonata for Solo Violin of 1944.
It was shortly after the meeting with Koussevitzky that leukemia, which was to prove fatal two years hence, was diagnosed; but the composer was kept in the dark. A wise decision, as it turned out, since during the subsequent months he regained strength and, obviously, creativity.
The score was written in only two months at the health resort of Saranac Lake in upstate New York and completed on October 8, 1943. The first performance, an enormous success with audience and critics, was given by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky on December 1, 1944.
The composer, in Boston for the premiere with his wife, Ditta Pásztory, reported: "We went there for the rehearsals and performances - after having obtained the grudgingly granted permission of my doctor for this trip.... The performance was excellent. Koussevitzky says it is the 'best orchestra piece of the last 25 years' (including the works of his idol, Shostakovich!)."
Bartók provided the following brief program note for the occasion:
"The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one... The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner. The 'virtuoso' treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum mobile-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages."
A charming, seldom-quoted story about that second movement is related by the late conductor Antal Dorati, who studied piano and composition with Bartók in Budapest and would occasionally visit his old teacher in New York:
"Once when we were alone, Bartók asked me, 'Do you know what the interruption in the [Concerto's] intermezzo interrotto is?'
'Of course I do, professor. It's from The Merry Widow.'
'And who is that?'
"Momentarily nonplussed, I then established that he did, after all, know who Lehár was, and had heard of The Merry Widow. But because its music was quite unfamiliar to him, and had no conceivable bearing on what he had been thinking of, he had not grasped what I was referring to.
"So, evidently it was not a quote from there. What was it then? Having extracted my solemn promise that I would not tell anyone while he was still alive... he confided that he was caricaturing a tune from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the "Leningrad," which was then enjoying great popularity in America, and, in Bartók's view, more than it merited. 'So, I gave vent to my anger,' he said."
The "Leningrad" punch line is familiar from recollections by other members of the Bartók circle; the Merry Widow reference, less so. The coincidental resemblance to the operetta's famous "Da geh' ich zu Maxim" (you know, 'Lolo, Joujou, Zsazsa,' etc.) is at least as apparent as is the intended resemblance to the latter part of the egregious "crescendo theme" in the first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony.
The Concerto for Orchestra follows the palindromic form Bartók employed in his Fourth String Quartet (1928), in which the core slow middle movement is surrounded by two scherzos, which are in turn surrounded by two larger movements.
Not least among the many attractions of this, the composer's most popular orchestral work, is his splendidly achieved end of allowing each section of his hundred-headed virtuoso to shine and, finally, to exhibit his virtuosity in a spectacularly complex fugue (in the finale's development), prior to the delectably rabble-rousing conclusion.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.